From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
Remember This…The Grey Nuns and the Hospital That They Built!
The General Hospital has a long history in the city. In the 1890s the population of Sault Ste. Marie was growing, due to the rise of the Clergue Industrial Empire.
As the community grew a hospital was needed, however the town was still not on sound financial footing in order to be able to build a public hospital. No private citizens at the time were wealthy enough to donate funds for a hospital. Even the federal government had turned down Sault Ste. Marie’s request for funds. In June of 1897 T.F. Chamberlain, who was the provincial inspector of asylums and prisons met with the hospital committee and said “If you wish a hospital of which the work is serious and lasting ask the Grey Sisters.”
The Grey Nuns can trace their origins back to Marguerite d’Youville. She was born in 1701 in Varennes, Quebec and in 1722 married Francois d’Youville. However, what should have been a period of happiness in her life soon became a life of strife. Out of her six children four died in infancy. Her husband showed little concern for Marguerite and their children. He engaged in the illegal fur and liquor trade and when he died in 1730, left her penniless and in debt. He had squandered the family’s money on drinking and gambling.
She didn’t let these experiences break her or her faith. Marguerite and three friends decided on December 13, 1737 to dedicate their life to helping the poor, becoming “les Soeurs Grises” the Grey Nuns.
On June 29, 1897, a day after receiving Chamberlain’s advice, Dr. Robert Gibson, a local doctor wrote to Sister St. Cyprien, a Grey Sister at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Sudbury. The letter provided all of the details needed to establish a hospital, with the exception of the cost of the building since Dr. Gibson was expecting the Grey Sisters to pay for the construction of a hospital. Sister Cyprien initially wrote to Superior General Demers about the proposed arrangement but it was her replacement Superior General Dorothy Kirby that actually completed the deal.
Due to the poor finances of the town the town’s council asked the Grey Sisters to hold the mortgage on the lot and building. The town would then pay $100 a year until the mortgage was paid off. On June 3, 1898 Superior General Kirby accepted the proposal, ensuring that the Sault would have a hospital.
Negotiations began immediately to secure a site and finalize the design of the hospital. Three lots were purchased on the shore of St. Marys River for a total cost of $2,700. Meanwhile local architect, James Thomson sent his designs to Ottawa for approval. His hospital design ensured free circulation of air and allowed for additional wings to be added with ease in the future. Once they had these matters settled they then addressed fundraising, which included the selling of tickets in the local lumber camps.
The construction of the hospital proceeded slower than expected due to a high water-table and the presence of quicksand. These issues would plague the General Hospital for years to come. The first nuns arrived by train on September 13, 1898. Since the hospital had not yet been completed, a house was designated as a temporary hospital. This house was located somewhere around the Government Dock near the intersection of Bay and Pim Streets, according to the book, The Story of Bawating.
The nuns were given no time to rest upon their arrival. On September 23, 1898 their first case of Typhoid was received with a second Typhoid victim admitted two days later. Out of fear of contracting the disease no one would come to do the laundry so the Sisters were forced to do it themselves. Since there was no water connection to the temporary hospital, they transported barrels of water from the river. In the sisters’ publication, the Chroniques, it was noted that during the operation of the temporary hospital 64 patients were cared for with a total of three deaths occurring.
The cornerstone of the General Hospital was laid on September 21, 1898 with many prominent citizens attending. By the time that the General Hospital was completed in September of 1899 it had all of the latest medical equipment and practices at the time, including a quarantine area, pathology lab, x-ray machine and labs for research. It functioned as a Catholic hospital under the administration of the Grey Nuns until provincial funding forced the Plummer and General Hospitals to start the long process, beginning in the 1960s, to merge their services and create one public hospital serving the entire community. This goal was finally realized in 1993 with the new name of Sault Area Hospital being established.
When the General Hospital’s grand opening was held on September 28, 1899 little did anyone realize that this would be the start of more than 100 years of providing health care from this location to the citizens of Sault Ste. Marie.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.